In April this year, Madano reported on the challenging situation faced by the UK’s universities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likening the sector’s difficult circumstances to a game of Kerplunk in which all of the straws have suddenly been removed, we predicted that “a university degree could be a tough sell to the 2020/21 intake who may consider a gap year instead.”
That reads like a real understatement following recent events at Manchester Metropolitan University. Students at the campus described themselves as “completely neglected” after they were forced to self-isolate for two weeks when 127 of them tested positive for COVID-19. The situation left 1,700 students all trying to source food – and, more importantly for them, alcohol – from the same local supermarkets. Security guards prevented residents from going outside to shop amid complaints of “little in the way of pastoral care”.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is also less of a fan of the university experience than some of his predecessors. He recently ditched the target, introduced by New Labour and adopted by successive governments, of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education, replacing it with a focus on further education and vocational training.
Accusing universities of failing to prepare graduates for the UK workforce, he said: “For too long, we’ve been training people for jobs that don’t exist. We need to train them for the jobs that do exist and will exist in the future. We have to end the focus on qualifications for qualifications’ sake.” And, this week, prime minister Boris Johnson finally delivered on recommendations from the Augar Review into post-16 education, pledging to end the gulf between further and higher education, commenting:
“We seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates, and on the other hand too many graduates with degrees which don’t get them the jobs that they want.”
The prime minister and education secretary’s comments chime with the sentiments of a couple of recently published books. Both political philosopher Michael Sandel – in The Tyranny of Merit – and journalist David Goodhart – in Head, Hand, Heart – argue that it’s time to reassess our notions of success and failure, and particularly how they relate to higher education and work.
And last month, Stefan Collini, professor emeritus of intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, delivered a withering assessment of the UK’s higher education sector:
“Universities are overcrowded and understaffed; contact hours are reduced; most teaching in the first two years is done by temporary and part-time staff; and underprepared students suffer debilitating stress. Moreover, instead of reliably leading to a better job, all it guarantees is a higher tax bill for the next 30 years.”
As a number of voices begin to question the actual purpose of universities, many institutions may need to adapt by reframing what they stand for and the benefit they deliver to society.
Despite mounting challenges, there are still opportunities for universities to thrive. One possibility is the government’s levelling up agenda, which promises to redirect investment to regions outside London and the south-east. Keen to retain its newly won “red wall” across the Midlands and the north of England, the present administration is likely to welcome potential development in those areas.
Universities have a real opportunity to play a central role in transforming their local area, whether through forging partnerships with local authorities and businesses, providing students with the skills needed for the region to thrive or persuading students to live and work in the area following graduation. Showing their commitment to their community in this way would allow universities to demonstrate their ongoing relevance and value in what is likely to remain an unpredictable environment for the foreseeable future.
What students want
As discussed by Sandel and Goodhart in their respective publications, traditional academic criteria provide a limited measure of an individual’s overall knowledge, skills and intelligence.
In fact, Madano’s own research into the higher education sector has found that students are seeking to acquire more tangible skills that they can apply directly to the workplace, and often in more practical disciplines.
Today’s students regard employment at the end of a degree as a given. Considering the huge amount of money they’re expected to shell out in tuition fees and the tens of thousands of pounds of debt they’re destined to graduate with, is it any wonder?
Given the current expectation that a degree will inevitably lead to a job, perhaps it’s time for universities to improve the vocational support they offer students beyond simply academic preparation. Many already give advice on job applications and interview skills to improve undergraduates’ chances of securing a position once they’ve completed their studies, but they could develop this offer and make it available to a greater number of students.
Aside from traditional employment, there could be an opportunity for universities to broaden their role by encouraging greater entrepreneurship and helping students to help themselves. By advising students how to set up their own company and putting young entrepreneurs in touch with potential partners, the higher education sector could recast itself as a genuine friend to business and safeguard its continuing relevance.
More than at any other time in recent history, the value and purpose of universities are being questioned right across the political spectrum. Outside of the familiar top-tier names, universities need to reassess and rethink why they do what they do and then rearticulate that concept in a way that speaks to students and meets wider societal objectives, keeping both government and the general public on side.
Universities that are agile, maintain two-way communication with their student body and take advantage of the current government agenda are likely to be best positioned to take the lead in shaping the sector as it moves forward.
As lockdown is gradually eased in the UK and life slowly begins to return to a semblance of normality (with collective fingers firmly crossed that spikes don’t lead to a second nationwide lockdown), now seems like an opportune moment to look back over the last five months and pick out some of the organisations who successfully adapted their communications strategies to fit the extraordinary circumstances imposed on them by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It may be an obvious choice, but it’s hard to ignore the way BrewDog took the closure of its 100 bars around the world, and the loss of 50 per cent of its export business, in its stride. Instead of bemoaning the situation forced upon it, the company decided to seize the initiative in a way that aligned with its manifesto pledge: “We do things against the grain. We will do what we think is right – and we really don’t care what people think.”
Deprived of its traditional purpose (“to make incredible craft beer”), BrewDog decided to switch its operations completely. Two days before it closed all of its UK bars, the company announced that it would now be producing hand sanitiser instead and donating it to the NHS and healthcare charities.
“We believe businesses should be a force for good,” explained James Watt, BrewDog’s co-founder and boss, and he went on to put his (lack of) money where his mouth was by refusing to take any salary in 2020, along with fellow co-founder Martin Dickie. The firm’s senior team also took pay cuts in order to protect jobs.
BrewDog also then cheekily waded into the furore surrounding Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to County Durham. In a fine example of social media brilliance, the company invited its Twitter followers to christen its latest, limited-edition beer, and the Barnard Castle Eye Test IPA was launched under the strapline: “Short-sighted beer for tall stories”.
It proved too good to resist for Keir Starmer, who popped into one of the brewer’s bars in London to be photographed holding a can. BrewDog were understandably keen to publicise the Labour leader’s endorsement, but careful to point out that proceeds from the IPA had funded 100,000 bottles of sanitiser for front-line workers.
Supermarkets were faced with a plethora of communication challenges in the early stages of lockdown as they sought to explain the intricacies of the new shopping reality to their customers while reassuring them with a basic message that it was still safe to visit their stores.
Tesco was among the first to launch a campaign promoting its social-distancing measures. On 27 March, it unveiled its “Keeping You Safe” ad to highlight the steps it had taken to protect customers and staff at important points in the shopping process. Featuring real employees, the ad detailed how parking attendants would be marshalling customers as they arrived at stores, and showed that signs displaying social distancing advice and queue markers had been arranged to ensure shoppers remained two metres apart. The campaign also underlined measures such as floor markings and one-way aisles, plus protective screens erected at tills to protect cashiers.
At the same time, supermarkets responded to concerns from shoppers worried about catching the virus by expanding their online services. Tesco upped its delivery slots to 1.2 million in a six-week period, more than doubling capacity. Morrison’s, Asda, Iceland and Waitrose also significantly increased their deliveries, while Sainsbury’s online grocery sales went from 7 per cent to 17 per cent during lockdown.
“Our business has fundamentally changed,” said the supermarket’s new chief executive, Simon Roberts. Alluding to the 25,000 new staff the chain had recruited, he continued: “A number of the decisions we have made have materially increased costs, but meant that we have done the right thing for our customers.”
All of these reputation management efforts have paid off handsomely. A recent survey carried out by IAB UK and YouGov revealed that 79 per cent of those questioned would be likely to favour brands that had acted and communicated well during the COVID-19 pandemic. Three quarters of respondents (75 per cent) said clear and frequent communication was a factor in their choice and close to two thirds (62 per cent) were swayed by the implementation of new safety measures.
The research also listed the brands that consumers felt most impressed by during lockdown. Supermarkets dominated the top 10, with Amazon and Boots the only non-supermarket brands to feature.
Like supermarkets, garden centres were quick to respond to the introduction of the government’s lockdown measures. In early April, the BBC reported that the outlets were providing personalised online shopping services to combat huge potential wastage (millions of plants, shrubs and trees) brought about by social-distancing measures.
Traders took advantage of the digital technology at their disposal to live-stream videos of their premises and give customers advice on orders via FaceTime and email. Chessington Garden Centre promoted its products through Facebook Live and offered a delivery service to fulfil orders received through its website.
As staff broadcast a walking tour through the centre and its goods, they replied to questions left by customers in the comments. The video began by assuring viewers that the centre was doing all it could to stick to government guidelines and make sure people stayed at home, but went on to insist that “what we do want to do is encourage you out into your gardens or outdoor space.”
Lessons from lockdown
Business strategy and communications strategy should be inextricably linked. The winners highlighted above have managed to either find a new role for the business that stayed true to its brand identity or reorganised their operations to respond to huge changes in customer demand, while restricted by measures introduced to fight COVID-19.
But if lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that the companies who have been most successful during this period are the ones who have quickly adapted to a sea change in the business environment and then taken their stakeholders with them on that journey.
Things were so much easier in 2020 BC (before COVID-19):
“A client wants us to organise a workshop? No problem! We’ve arranged loads of similar events before. We’ll use our experience, follow our tried and tested formula and then tailor the content to meet the specific requirements of this event…”
[Cue a global pandemic shutting down vast swathes of the economy and forcing large areas of the planet into lockdown. The reality of 2020 AC (Anno Coroni) suddenly hits home.]
“… Ah, this is not going to be as easy as we’d imagined! What do we need to do now to make this a success??”
That was basically the internal monologue of Madano’s Healthcare practice leading up to what would become a two-day virtual event for 80 internal stakeholders working in Alzheimer’s disease, with participants scattered around the world from Brazil and Europe to the UAE and Australia. We weren’t entirely sure how we were going to get this one over the line, faced with such unforeseen circumstances and pressures, but we love a challenge, and get it over the line we did! Here are the lessons we learned along the way.
As you can imagine, the event’s virtual setting presented a whole new set of considerations and challenges to overcome, and we wanted to ensure that the event was engaging and fun for everyone sat in their home offices, living rooms, kitchens, and even childhood bedrooms for those who locked down with family!
We began by circulating a survey among participants to help us plan the event in a way that would be of most interest and use to those attending, as well as requesting their current location and time zones (as many people were locked down in areas outside of their offices’ cities!) to help with the scheduling.
The survey also enabled us to determine the type of content attendees would like to be included in the sessions, with a mix of workshops, co-creation, information-sharing and training sessions. In addition, we asked attendees to indicate whose perspectives they would most like to hear – whether neurologists, caregivers and family members of people living with Alzheimer’s, or team members for best-practice examples.
The end result included neurologist and Alzheimer’s specialists’ perspectives for two of the sessions; fortunately, we were blessed with a group of personable, energetic and passionate presenters, so each session produced a lot of interaction and questions from the audience. Making sure your presenters are enthusiastic and able to transmit that enthusiasm to those listening is important for any event, but it’s almost mandatory in a virtual environment.
Another tip that we’d offer is to include an unexpected but relevant addition to your event to surprise attendees and maintain their interest. We did this in the form of a digital illustrator who sat in on the first day’s sessions, producing sketches of each session’s content, and then presented the illustrations back to the audience on the second day. Aside from providing a very creative way to summarise the first day’s discussions for attendees, those illustrations will now be used as a follow-up to produce an infographic tracing a patient’s journey through their condition and the team’s goals to help improve this. A short break for a team scavenger hunt – finding every day items around their homes in the fastest time – also added a very enjoyable element to the second day.
Make it personal!
Prior to the meeting, attendees were asked if they’d be willing to share country-specific experiences at the event (nine agreed) and their personal experiences with the disease (four were willing). We also asked employees to provide a 10-second video clip of themselves stating a pledge they wanted to make for the future – either patient-focused or within the business. These clips were compiled into a video shown at the start and end of the event, and individually hosted on an internal team platform (which we also completely rebranded and reformatted in preparation for the meeting).
Some presentations used videos and photo montages to tell very emotional stories. These poignant personal narratives, of parents and grandparents who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, demonstrated the real passion that this team has to keep patients at the heart of every discussion (and made both the clients and our team shed a few tears!), especially during a meeting otherwise quite focused on expertise and strategy.
Lessons and recommendations
At the end of the meeting, we circulated an evaluation survey to determine what had worked well and identify areas where we could improve future events. We were pleased to discover that all respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the meeting had met their expectations in terms of content, was well organised, and the sessions were relevant and useful. Encouragingly, many felt that the virtual format was as effective as if the meeting had been face-to-face, a positive step for the new world we live in.
Our recommendations for similar virtual healthcare events would include sharing more best-practice examples from internal employees, including more time for Q&A sessions and giving plenty of emphasis to the patient and caregiver voice. As the organiser, we would also advise having more sessions that are shorter in length, with more frequent breaks in between (even if only for a few minutes), to allow the audience to refresh and maintain their concentration levels.
And finally, as anyone who’s been working remotely for several months now will tell you, anticipate technology not always working in the way you had planned and try to come up with an alternative for when it does… and when that happens, above all else, keep calm!
After the downturn comes the recovery. At least that’s the theory of how things should pass.
Over the past few months, Government and industry have spoken out on the urgent need for a green recovery based on investment, jobs and growth in the UK’s burgeoning low-carbon sector.
The message has been delivered and Government has sought to get on the front foot by bringing leading industry players around the virtual roundtable in recent weeks to determine what the green recovery should look like and the support mechanisms that need to go into it.
The wider context of the green recovery extends further than a reflex response to the post-COVID-19 world as the Government has promised to level up Britain’s regions, increase productivity, deliver on the many Brexit promises and ultimately create a world-beating net zero economy by 2050.
But like the “57 varieties of Heinz” slogan, green recoveries come in various shapes and sizes.
A case of history repeating?
For seasoned observers, it feels like we’ve been here before, most notably in 2008-2010 when governments first saw the opportunities of renewable energy markets and provided bazooka-like fiscal stimuluses.
The Obama administration provided US$90 billion to promote clean energy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This led to a fundamental global restructuring of how renewable energy was financed and developed.
Create the conditions and investment for a market to develop and the ‘invisible hand’ will work its magic, or so the theory goes.
Ten or so years on, it could be argued that this approach has worked as many renewable forms of energy, such as offshore wind and solar, have become developed industries and are moving to a model where they no longer need government support (i.e. “zero-subsidy”).
However, some have argued that the UK fluffed its lines over a decade ago by not being ambitious enough. Nick Molho, Executive Director at the Aldersgate Group, was quoted recently in Business Green: “The UK did not seize the opportunity to transform its economy for the better when it responded to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.”
With hindsight, it’s easy to conclude that Government failed to deliver a long-term plan for low-carbon technologies to transform the economy.
Now Government has bought into the idea that low-carbon infrastructure and growing industries, such as hydrogen, electric vehicles and retrofitting our building stock, can create jobs and provide a long-term low-carbon economy.
Pressure is also building from a cross-party selection of MPs who, just this week, urged Government to accelerate the transition to net zero to “get the UK on track”.
The idea of a “green industrial revolution” has gained further urgency given the sharpest economic contraction of modern times, as well as rapid global climate change.
As Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg NEF highlighted, we need to remove carbon from our economy at a rate three to seven per cent faster per year than we have been doing in order to meet our Paris commitments.
The post-COVID-19 world has brought a new reality. Months of lockdown have provided obvious benefits. Fewer planes, trains and cars mean cleaner air in our cities. Biodiversity has flourished in many places across the world as humans have retreated. A consensus is emerging for these positive changes to continue.
Importantly, investment continues to pour into renewables and most analysts expect this to carry on, despite the COVID19 pandemic. While the energy sector has been hit hard by COVID-19, the renewables sector is showing remarkable signs of resilience.
How do companies and organisations shape the green recovery?
With Government and MPs making weekly statements about the green recovery, and with public acceptance of renewable energy higher than ever, companies in the energy and environment space will never have a better opportunity to push forward the green agenda.
Government is listening, ministers are keen to deliver, MPs are engaged, and the electorate wants to see the creation of new jobs and industries
The awarding of new funding is being accelerated and made available to companies with new innovations and technologies that progress the low-carbon transition, such as sucking CO² out of the air.
Communications are central to this.
Companies will need to show commitment to the green recovery, showing that they understand the Government’s agenda with a clear strategy and vision, impactful messaging and narrative, and a roadmap on how they are going to deliver, as well as a clear recommendation or ‘ask’ of Government.
One clear lesson is to be bold. Companies can draw on the recent precedent of lockdown lobbying from Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford. His free school meals campaign, as my colleague Evan Byrne noted in his excellent blog, was successful because it delivered a simple but uncompromising ‘ask’ to Government.
Know who the key stakeholders are. The shifting sands of the post-COVID-19 world mean that the stakeholders that a company or organisation might have communicated with in the past might not be the same ones who are shaping the green recovery. Take some time to map the stakeholder landscape and find out who the influential stakeholders really are.
And don’t forget to engage the public on this journey. They are also important stakeholders. They influence the influencers.
More broadly, the green recovery isn’t just a reaction to the post-COVID-19 world, it’s an opportunity to commit your business or organisation to creating a better world – a net-zero world. The promise of new jobs is an exciting one.
Those companies that have committed to net zero, with tangible goals and attainable milestones, have been well received by media. Outlandish net-zero commitments will likely be met with scepticism and negativity, just as “greenwashing” has been called out and rejected in the past. The public will want to see proof of progress as well as sincerity.
There is surely no better time to cement the goal of net zero in the public consciousness than now as people demand greater action to protect the environment, with many inspired by the actions of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
With COP26 taking place in Glasgow late next year, it is also an opportunity for companies and organisations to get a head start on their competitors, positioning themselves prominently in an increasingly crowded space. There’s a business imperative to being ahead of the game on net zero.
The signs are there that, this time, the green recovery will be a defining pillar of the UK and other countries’ post-industrial development. The scale of the economic and climate crisis dictates this.
But this will only happen if leading companies and organisations understand the new reality and seize the opportunities that it has provided them.
Madano advises clients in the energy and infrastructure sectors adapting to the impacts of COVID-19 and transitioning to lower carbon operating models. If you’re interested in learning more, please drop me a line directly at: [email protected]om. You can also follow Madano on Twitter.
Our focus in this edition of the Madano Mindset Series is on some of the communications considerations that will emerge as vast governmental life rafts of support are eased and organisations face up to the future COVID-19 reality.
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